By Drew Sutherland ’21
During quarantine, there was no show that I loved more than The West Wing. In my opinion, it is both the best written and acted television show of all time. Yes, above Game of Thrones.
The West Wing is a political drama created by Aaron Sorkin that ran from 1999-2005. Sorkin is best known for writing the 2010 film The Social Network, for which he won an Oscar. The West Wing takes place in a romanticized fiction of American Politics, under Democratic President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet. The show follows the two terms of President Bartlet, his family, and his senior staff and administration.
On October 15, HBO released a one hour special starring the original cast in honor of non-partisan and non-profit organization When We All Vote which helps prevent voter suppression and gets people out to vote. The special brought back the entirety of the original cast, except for the late John Spencer, who played Chief of Staff Leo McGarry. Spencer was nominated for several Emmys for the role, ultimately winning for season 3 by portraying his characters’ alcoholism. He was replaced by omnipresent This is Us and Black Panther actor Sterling K. Brown. Other actors returning include Bradley Whitford, who plays assistant Chief of Staff Josh Lyman. Whitford is known for his starring role in Jordan Peele’s 2017 Oscar winner Get Out, and for his appearance in The Handmaid’s Tale. Whitford won an Emmy in season two of The West Wing for the episode Noel, in which he dealt with PTSD from a recent assassination attempt. Other returning stars include Emmy winner Richard Schiff, Psych star Dulé Hill, Emmy nominee Janel Moloney, Parks and Recreation star Rob Lowe, and I, Tonya Oscar Winner Allison Janney. Finally, the inimitable Apocalypse Now actor Martin Sheen stars again as President Bartlet.
Where commercial breaks should have occurred, instead guest speakers spoke about the importance of voting and gave facts about voting. To begin the special, Whitford said that it was filmed “under the strictest COVID guidelines.” He continued to say that “We understand that some people don’t understand the benefit of unsolicited advice from actors. And if HBO was willing to point a camera at the 10 smartest people in the world we’d gladly clear the stage for them, but the camera’s pointed at us, and we feel that the risk of appearing obnoxious is too small a reason to stay quiet if we can get even one new voter to vote.” Former First Lady Michelle Obama then said “Just vote. Reach out to everyone you know, because every vote will make a difference in this election.” The Handmaid’s Tale and The Invisible Man star Elisabeth Moss spoke about the importance of getting young people to vote. Moss was the youngest cast member on The West Wing, playing the role of Zoey Bartlet, one of the “first daughters” of the United States.
During the next break, Whitford and Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, clarified common misconceptions about voter fraud. “What better way to clarify something than with sign language! One misconception is that voter fraud is something that, what’s the word-”, Matlin then interjected, saying “exists.” The two continue to talk about possible ways to commit voter fraud, and why they do not work. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is a very vocal West Wing fan, spoke about the fact that “there’s a good chance it could be days before a winner is declared.” Those with a discerning ear would have heard that Miranda referenced The West Wing multiple times during his Emmy winning musical Hamilton. Former President Bill Clinton, the next guest, spoke concerning the fact that even though every American has a right to vote, “We still have a long way to go” to stop voter suppression. Dulé Hill and Sterling K. Brown spoke next about the importance of the African-American vote in this election, saying that “Even now, in the height of Black Lives Matter, too many young black people think elections just don’t matter.” Hill continued to say “If you’re sick, not just of the recession but of the fact that our communities are hit first, hardest, and longest, then this election matters to you. And you need to vote.” Brown concluded, “If you’re sick, not just of police brutality, but of the fact that no amount of marching or shouting seems to change a damn thing about it, then this election matters, and you need to vote.”
The episode featured was season 3 episode 15 “Hartsfield’s Landing”, one of my personal favorites, which follows the New Hampshire primary in the titular small town. “Hartsfield’s Landing” is based off of the real towns Dixville Notch and Hart’s Location, who famously vote at midnight. This episode includes three major plotlines. The first is two games of chess between the President and his staff members which take place concurrently with the second: the President attempting to prevent a nuclear war between China and Taiwan. The third plotline is by far the most poignant today, as it follows the Deputy Chief of Staff and his secretary, who try to convince two voters to re-elect the President.
The most important line of this entire episode comes at the very end, when the Deputy Chief of Staff finds out that the reason that these two voters will not re-elect the President is “because he lied” about a preexisting condition he has that could be fatal.
I have seen both this episode and the special a few times. The familiarity of the lines, the slightly older faces of the actors, the original orchestral theme music played on guitar by the composer, were like comfort food. Bradley Whitford poignantly ended the special by saying “I’m a little scared to stop talking because I don’t know what will happen if I do. I guess we’ll all find out together.” And I suppose that we will.